Women are getting increasingly greater autonomy, and they have taken great leaps in regaining space in the public sphere. The world has seen women coming up to in a multitude of fields, and the glass ceiling is slowly breaking. One such area that women are actively entering is that of comedy. There isn't a lot of data available about the first female comedian, but sources place it around in the 1700's as the timeline when women first entered the world of comedy. It was in the later part of the 20th century when female comics started participating more actively. Phyllis Diller is one of the first female comics, who gained popularity and had an entire persona attached to her public standing. She was a stand-up comic, who talked about womanhood, beauty, family life, and also became an LGBT icon in the early 20th century. Stand-up comedy at that time was primarily a male-dominated stream, and even though she had her husband’s support, she faced struggles. Women over the years have pushed their limits in comedy itself and explored genres like musical comedy, parodies, and dramas. Carol Burnett, the groundbreaking comedienne, had her show in 1967, and Whoopi Goldberg opened doors for women of colour to bring the conversation about gender and race into this entertainment space.
The fact as to how early female comics found their footing has been explored in the award-winning show The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, released in 2017 on Amazon Prime. The entire show is set in 1950s USA, with Miriam (Midge) Maisel, a young Jewish woman as the protagonist. Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) is a polished, attractive woman residing in an upscale apartment in New York City. She has the ‘perfect’ married life, where she supports her husband’s stand-up comedy ventures. All this falls apart when Miriam’s husband leaves her for his secretary and she, in a drunken state goes to an open mic and stages a performance talking about her failed marriage. Midge then dives headfirst into the world of stand-up. The show is ground-breaking since it delves deeply into how women approach comedy. It breaks down the various small ways female comics are less respected than their male counterparts.
Comediennes of today owe a lot to the pioneering female comics who have paved their way. They are going out and creating a podium for themselves by speaking up on topics that are considered to be ‘taboo’. They have mainly brought academic issues like feminism to the world. Comedy shows by female comediennes are upfront and use the psychological method of persuasion effectively. Does the humour blatantly tell the audience to be feminists and stand up for themselves? Seldom. But, does it bring out nuances like how a woman looking at her phone while her child is playing is called a bad mother, while a man doesn’t get blamed for the same action. Oh, indeed that, and with the help of realistic anecdotes which are relatable to the listener. Female comedians, even today fall prey to the ' women cannot be funny' trope. A woman is considered desirable only if she laughs at a man's joke – and not when she takes the public space. The proportion of male to female comics is still less, and they are less popular than men. When women bring about sexual references or cuss words in their performance, they are deemed as someone with a low character who does 'manly' things. They are looked critically through the lens of patriarchy.
The comic fraternity in India, where organisations like AIB and EIC (which are male-dominated) are making videos on gender equality, but the number of women in the community are still less. The most prominent comedians in India are still men and just a handful of women. It has been a tale of trial and error along with constant pressure for them to cement their place in comedy. Let's take the instance of Mallika Dua. She was first seen in a YouTube video as a typical Delhi girl and rose to fame with her quirky comic style. It was after a few YouTube videos and creating a vast array of relatable characters which helped her build a brand for herself. Post her establishment through being a part of several videos and shows; she started getting more opportunities. Mallika openly talks about nepotism in the stand-up industry and is also a fierce feminist. Another refreshing instance is that of the comedienne – Sumukhi Suresh. She started by working for several shows and created specific characters which she could be associated with. She worked in collaboration with other comedians until her work got acknowledged by Amazon. Last year, she got her web series named Pushpavalli on Amazon Prime. Sumukhi has also acted in vernacular films and is an active face of the feminist movement too. In the context of the status of women in comedy and comments like ‘You are funny for a woman’, she says, “While initially, you enjoy the attention, soon enough you should want to be the best at what you do and not be limited by your gender.” It is indeed a happy scene to see women themselves breaking the shackles of stereotypes. With new ventures as seen in the article, things are changing.
Baron, R A., & Misra, G. (2014). Psychology Indian Subcontinent Edition. Noida India.
Hare, B. (2017, February 16). 'Make everybody laugh': How 6 famous funny women got their start. CNN. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2017/02/16/entertainment/history-of-comedy-first-jobs/index.html
Seethaler, I. (2018). From Roseanne Barr to Amy Poehler: Comediennes, Memoirs, and Feminism. Women's Studies An Interdisciplinary Journal. 47(4). 447-467.
Image Credit: New Love Times
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